Cal men’s basketball tasked with slowing down USC’s skilled frontcourt

Athlete holds basketball and runs up the court as his opponent chases after him.
Lorenzo Dela Cruz/File

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The path to prosperity is seldom anything but a long, slow, arduous process, for it was not the last whack of the sledgehammer that broke the boulder, but rather the thousands that came before it.

For all the turmoil that Cal men’s basketball has suffered through this season, there’s a lingering sentiment that this team will somehow notch a victory and avoid the ultimate worst-case scenario: a winless record in conference. With a scuffling USC team coming to town Saturday, this much-anticipated day of jubilation may finally be right around the corner.

“We have that taste throughout the games,” said Cal freshman Connor Vanover. “Seeing the other teams celebrate, it’s something that we long to do — to get our first win. To get the first win, and then keep going after that.”

The Bears haven’t won in nearly two months and are currently riding a historically atrocious 13-game losing streak. While the tides haven’t completely changed, they’re moving in the right direction.

Cal’s first nine defeats of this losing streak came by an average of 15.3 points, with two losses by 20-plus points.

These past four contests have had an entirely different feel. The losses to Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA came by an average of just 7 points. If Josh Sharma’s block isn’t changed to a charge on Matt Bradley, maybe this isn’t even a conversation.

One of Cal’s closer defeats of this skid coincidentally came against USC in Los Angeles. Even with the talent disparity, the Trojans needed Nick Rakocevic to post a career-high 27 points and a very meh offensive performance by the Bears to win by only 9 points.

“They’re very talented, very talented,” said head coach Wyking Jones. “They got a bunch of guys, any given night, they got five, six guys that could step up and play huge games.”

While there will be some familiar faces present, the USC team that Cal will play Saturday in Berkeley presents a different set of challenges.

For one, the Bears will now have to account for Kevin Porter Jr. and Elijah Weaver, both of whom missed the initial matchup with respective injuries. Neither has played all that well since returning, but at the very minimum, they give USC some much-needed depth.

The biggest difference between the first and second meetings of these teams does not lie in someone new being added to the equation.

Since conference play began, Bennie Boatwright has been an entirely different beast and has catapulted himself into the player of the year discussion.

Against Pac-12 opponents, Boatwright is averaging 20.1 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from deep. That’s a far cry from the player who was trying to get his legs under him after returning from injury.

Cal’s interior defense will also need to deal with Rakocevic, who has continued to be a double-double machine. In conference play, Rakocevic is averaging 17.0 points and 9.2 rebounds while shooting 59.7 percent from the field.

The Bears’ rim protection hasn’t had much luck slowing down anyone else these days, but the combination of Boatwright and Rakocevic has the potential to be especially ugly. Cal is allowing 2-pointers at a clip of 58.4 percent, the second-worst mark in the entire nation, and Boatwright and Rakocevic are the only frontcourt tandem with both players averaging at least 15 points per game.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.